1992, aged 12: My homesickness is like a bruise. At first it's big and vivid and painful, and then a week goes by and it fades a little, and then another week goes by and it's gone. A few months later, just when I've forgotten all about it, there it is all over again, and I wonder how it could ever have faded in the first place. And then, of course, it fades.
One day I convince my grandma that I need a new school shirt from the school shop, that she should make the two-hour round trip to come and buy it for me. Both she and I know that I could easily put it on my school tab, that I don't need her there at all, but neither of us says anything about it to the other, and a few days later, there she is, her little white car crunching over the gravel of the school's driveway, a ham sandwich wrapped up for me in her handbag. It's lunchtime and I have a break between lessons, and we talk for a little while in the parking lot, and twenty minutes later, she turns around and drives home again. We never buy the shirt. We both know I just wanted to see her.
These are the rules for my first year of boarding school: we can be taken out by friends and relatives on Sundays---after chapel, of course---as long as we're home an hour before lights out. Once a month, we're allowed to leave for the whole weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday night, and these occasions are quite charmingly called exeats, perhaps solidifying the case for the Latin classes we're taking twice a week.
If neither of my parents is in the country---my dad comes over often for business, my mother to see me---then I spend the weekend with one or the other of my grandmothers. Sometimes it's Grandma, my mother's mother, and sometimes it's Omi, my dad's mother. I watch from the windows of the dormitory, and when it's Omi, I can see her coming from a mile away, and I do mean that literally: she drives a bright orange MGB that used to belong to my father.
When she arrives, sitting up on cushions behind the steering wheel, I run down the stairs to meet her, and before we can leave again---before we can leave anywhere again---she always has to change her shoes and have half a cigarette. It's always half. The other half she puts back in the packet for later.
This first year away from home, my grandmothers bolster me. They come together and they prop me up with their love and their kindness, their home-cooked meals and their long-distance telephone lines, the snacks they tuck into their purses for me, the crisp five-pound notes they send in the post, and the driving, all that driving they do, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Why do they do it? They do it because I need them. They deserve a medal, these women, for their efforts.
1993, aged 13: Suddenly, everything gets better. I move into a new boarding house in the main school, and it's like the straitjacket's been taken off. Curfews are later, rules are more lax, autonomy is gradually granted. I live in a dormitory with ten other girls, and it's like one long slumber party: we share clothes, we braid each other's hair, we talk about boys.
A week before the end of each term, large burly men are hired to lift our trunks down from the attic, and every time we go in and out of the dining hall, we see them sitting there, waiting to be filled with all the stuff we won't use while we're home for Easter or Christmas or summer break, and when this happens, when the trunks finally come down at the end of term, there is not one girl among us who cannot claim to feel a frisson of excitement.
Midway through the year, I am granted a wish: in September, my parents will be moving back to England. What have I done to deserve this, this long-anticipated reprieve from the homesickness and separation? I don't know, but I don't question it; this is the best news I have heard in two years.
Late that summer, we pack up the house in Hong Kong---at six years, it's the longest I've ever lived in one country---and we catch a plane to Los Angeles for a family vacation. This is is my first taste of America and I am immediately enamored. We spend two weeks in California---one glorious one in L.A. and one ill-fated one driving up the coast in a Winnebago, during which everyone gets sick---and by the time we leave, I am convinced: this is where I'm going to live one day, land of the free, home of the Chips Ahoy and the shiny drugstores and the cable TV. The cars are bigger, the streets are bigger, the skies are bigger. America clicks a switch in me. Just like that, I'm hooked.